“In the end, the film would merely consist in showing a victim, a man who had been subjected to an entirely unjust and appalling fate, and, on the other, the mechanism leading up to it. This would be inappropriate, for to show something is to ennoble it.” Francois Truffaut on making an anti-war film.
I’ll say up front that I am not a video game person. I enjoy the occasional strategy game, but I’ve never owned a console or even kept up with the latest releases.
We don’t have a lot of blockbuster media set during World War I, which is not surprising. The United States didn’t get involved until the very end. It also lacks the heroic myth that its sequel has: The Allies fought valiantly to liberate Asia from the tyranny of Japan and Europe from the villainous Nazis. There’s nothing glamorous about it.
Oh, they tried to spin it that way at the time- but it didn’t work. World War I is notable for the amount of art and literature it inspired, both during and afterward. A recurring theme for people who lived through the mechanized, industrial warfare, especially in trenches along the Western Front, was disillusionment- the high ideals soldiers went to war for meant absolutely nothing.
The fighting was impersonal: You couldn’t hope to survive because you were good with a sword or a crack shot. Death could come at any moment from an artillery barrage or poison gas. A machine gun could mow down dozens of people with barely any effort.
The title of All Quiet on the Western Front, by German veteran Erich Maria Remarque, is one more dehumanizing insult: the death of the main character, weeks before the end of the war, is so insignificant that the report to HQ doesn’t see fit to even mention it.
The single player campaign of Battlefield 1 seems to echo these themes: the advertising reminds us that “behind every gunsight is a human being.” This excerpt puts up a name and date range every time the player character is killed- before they jump into a new body and continue as they had before.
But I suspect the long term interest in this game will be in its multiplayer mode. Here, there is no story. No hope of a peace treaty. The war only stops when you turn the game off and walk away. In an added dose of realism, this World War I will also encourage another video game war in the not too distant future.
We love to praise these games for their “realism.” But only to a point. If the game were realistic, the tanks and trucks you can drive around wouldn’t work nearly as well as they do here. Machine guns would overheat. And there’d be a lot more waiting.
This isn’t my idea of fun, but I understand how it could be. Even in depictions of war that are supposed to be realistic and traumatic, like the D-Day sequence of Saving Private Ryan, they aren’t always received that way. I think we’ve gone from showing war as fun and glamorous to showing it as challenge to be endured. If you can make it, it’s a testament to your courage, your strength, your badassery.
Except in the real war, your survival had nothing to do with any of those things.
World War I didn’t just happen. It didn’t just happen because a 19-year-old shot an Archduke. It happened because everyone assumed that a war would happen eventually, and rather than trying to prevent it, they wanted to give themselves the best shot at winning right off the bat.
That worked well.
To tell the story of World War I, we can take some liberties with historical accuracy- but we should still be honest. And if we’re being honest, I don’t know if it’s possible to make a video game about such a traumatic event that doesn’t make you want to turn it off.
-  I guess they are trying to make trench warfare look cool. ↩
-  A more literal translation of the German would be “Nothing New in the West.” ↩
-  It was banned by the Nazis because it didn’t glorify warfare. ↩
-  Except in the video game- they’re just computerized representations of human beings. ↩
-  Also, that music is way too inspirational for the subject matter. ↩